****On occasions Friends of the Wild Whoopers comes across an article that is so intelligent and so spot on that we want to share it with viewers of our web site. The following article about Texas bays and coast by environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn is one of those articles. Jim takes a somewhat different look at the water woes in Texas and offers a sensible solution. He wrote”… the problems that we have created with our water management policies and our actions cannot be solved by thinking the same way we were thinking when we caused these problems. We perhaps should ask “What was wrong with the thinking that caused this problem, and what can we do differently?” We urge you to read this entire article and send links to your friends and associates.****
Houston Chronicle – LETTERS – November 29,2014
By Jim Blackburn
Many residents of the Houston region are from elsewhere. Many of us know little about the natural system surrounding us – one of the most exciting and varied in the United States. And key elements of that natural bounty are our coastal bays and estuaries.
From Sabine Lake on the Louisiana border to Nueces Bay near Corpus Christi, our bays are centers of natural production, turning out products just like refineries and chemical plants do. However, instead of gasoline or propylene, our estuaries produce white and brown shrimp, oysters and crabs for the dinner table and hours of fishing and bird-watching pleasure for all ages, genders and ethnicities.
Unfortunately, our track record for protecting these coastal “engines of production” is bad and getting worse. A 2011 study by our state water agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, found that Nueces Bay immediately to the north of Corpus Christi was no longer ecologically viable, meaning that this once productive estuary was no longer a dependable source of white and brown shrimp, crabs and oysters. Its fishery had been destroyed. The goose that laid the golden eggs had died.
Surprisingly, this same report also concluded that water development projects in the watershed of Nueces Bay had caused this damage by depriving the bay of needed freshwater inflows. These are the actions of Texas. These are our actions. We collectively have killed the golden goose.
Nueces Bay is not alone. Every bay on the Texas coast is threatened to one degree or another. The Oct. 25 edition of the Houston Chronicle included a report about ecological harm to Galveston Bay due to reduced freshwater inflows “Clams’ deaths may reveal future of bay’s viability” (Page A1). Galveston Bay is our most productive Texas bay. We should all note that the warning lights are clearly flashing here.
Farther south, Corpus Christi federal Judge Janis Jack ruled in 2013 that the management actions of Texas water officials had a negative impact on San Antonio Bay and affected the food sources of the endangered whooping crane, causing the death of 23 cranes. That same year in the same bay system, the fishing for speckled trout was as bad as at any time in recent memory.
In the middle coast, Matagorda Bay has been and is being starved of freshwater inflow so that lake levels can be maintained and yards watered in the Hill Country and in Austin.
We Texans have demonstrated that we can kill a bay. We can dry up a river, such as the Rio Grande in 2000. But the question is: Can we take smart and effective action to save our bays, our coastal fishery and our coastal recreational paradise that so many take for granted?
To solve this problem, I look to superior thinkers such as Albert Einstein, who might suggest that the problems that we have created with our water management policies and our actions cannot be solved by thinking the same way we were thinking when we caused these problems. We perhaps should ask “What was wrong with the thinking that caused this problem, and what can we do differently?”
First, we failed to provide water rights for the bays and estuaries. This oversight was understandable in the early to mid-1900s because we did not know that bays and estuaries required freshwater inflows to stay alive. We know differently now, but we have not acted upon that knowledge.
Second, we issued and continue to issue water withdrawal permits that we know cannot be met during drought conditions. And then, even though we tell cities and water districts that these permits cannot and should not be relied upon during droughts, they inevitably are. This results in the situation that currently exists on the Brazos River: Many senior water rights holders are being restricted so that “junior” users that wrongly depended on relatively worthless permits can get the water upon which they now depend.
Arguably, the Texas water management system is based on prayers for rain. We need to stop issuing permits for which dependable water does not exist. We need to cancel old permits that have not been used. We need to reconsider every permit in every river system.
The water of our rivers is state water. Our current practice is to give this water away rather than charging for it. This water is not “free.” When we allow water to be taken from a river or stream, there is a cost associated with resulting damage.
For coastal commerce and anglers, inadequate inflows mean the end of coastal fishing as we know it. Without inflows, there is no need for fishing boats, weekend retreats, fishing lures and all the paraphernalia that a fisherman or woman needs. Birdwatchers will have less desire to spend a portion of their $48 billion in annual expenditures on the Texas coast.
One management thought worth considering is to determine a cost for the harm resulting from taking water from a river or stream and then charge this cost to water users. Much of our water is wasted, and it is cheap to waste water in Texas. Why shouldn’t we pay a fair price for water we are wasting?
If we price water fairly and allow the market to take over, we would soon have an abundance of alternative water development concepts. A recent computation of the dollar impact to recreational and commercial fisheries for a project on the Guadalupe River resulted in damage to the bay of over $4 per thousand gallons of developed water, an amount sufficient to make the development of reservoirs and surface conveyance systems more expensive than desalination. And once that competition gets going, the efficiency of membrane technology will improve and the cost will come down.
Water pricing is a tricky issue. We need to make sure that water for basic human needs exists at reasonable rates.
However, we can be creative in our views of water and water policy. We have excellent science and excellent thinkers in our state. We have the tools. We just have to use them.
Blackburn is a Houston-based environmental lawyer.
***** FOTWW’s mission is to help preserve and protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo
population of wild whooping cranes and their habitat. *****